Reviews

2011 Audi A8 Walk Around

The most eye-catching feature of the new, 2011 Audi A8 is the optional headlamp system. Every function, including for the first time the headlight high and low beams, consists of an assemblage of light emitting diodes. There is no single bulb serving any single purpose. Viewed head on, it's like a string of monochromatic Christmas tree lights reclining on a contrasting colored light rope bed. Audi says its LED system consumes 40 watts against 50 watts to 60 watts for most headlight high beams and as much as 80 watts for some xenon HID lamps. Even with the lower wattage, Audi still fits each headlight assembly with a small fan that keeps air circulating around the LEDs any time the lights are on. Whatever, there's no mistaking the new A8s in the rearview mirror or oncoming, especially at night.

The other, equally important but less noticeable feature is a modestly bulbous hood. This is something that'll increasingly be appearing on European-brand cars as they're re-styled to meet the continent's recently adopted pedestrian safety standards. Those that are done well, as is the '11 A8's, which benefits from a complementary grille geometry, will be largely invisible. Others, like on the new BMW 7 Series, may look a bit awkward until our eyes adjust to the new contours.

The other noticeable feature on the A8's face is one that's no longer there: the black bar crossing the grille at bumper height. The grille now looks of a single piece, a large but not ungraceful trapezoid sporting the trademark four interlocking rings.

Viewed from the side, the new A8 quite frankly could be any one of the continent's large luxury sedans. Subdued character lines paralleling each other trace rearward from the top and bottom of the front wheelwell to the top of the boot and the center of the rear bumper; the lower line, of course, breaks where it leap frogs the rear wheelwell. The overall image is boxier and less wedge-like than the styling cues that prevail in the brand's smaller sedans. Door handles pop out of otherwise clean flanks just below the upper character line. The low profile tires neatly fill circular, gently blistered wheelwells.

Audi carries the LED theme into the taillights, enclosing the brake light units in a loop of running lights that wrap around the corner of the rear fender to double as side marker lights. The trailing edge of the trunk lid arcs across the car between the taillights, curving around the rear fender to link up with the upper character line creasing the A8's flanks. Properly placed dual exhaust tips peak out through the lower portion of the rear bumper, itself graced with a slender strip of bright work running the width of the car. A cutline bisecting the vertical plane of the trunk lid below the interlocking rings logo and between the taillights hides the lighting for the rear license plate and the pressure button for opening the trunk.

Interior

There's almost too much going on inside the new A8s. Not to say the panoply of new devices, interfaces and comforts are overly distracting, but they do require a major effort to acclimate to all the sensory inputs, functional capabilities and optional settings. And the question remains just how much of it buyers really want or will ever use.

Taking the essentials first, seats all around give good support without being overly firm or too soft. We didn't find that we needed all 22 adjustments offered on the test A8 to get comfortable, but some might. The automatic climate control easily handled Central California's hottest days of the year and the first cold snap of winter, which reached the low 40s.

Where there's wood trim, it's real. The standard leather upholstery and trim had that expensive look and feel, although on those hot days the test A8's ventilation system was much appreciated by way of keeping driver and passengers' backsides cool and dry. The only complaint about visibility is with the wide C-pillar (the rearmost body panel supporting the car's roof), although no doubt Audi would argue that the blind spot warning system minimizes that problem.

As for roominess, the A8's front seats trail only the BMW 740i in headroom, but by more than three inches. In legroom, the A8 splits the difference between the BMW and the Mercedes-Benz S-Class sedans.

Rear-seat accommodations in the A8 felt about average, and our impressions were largely supported by the numbers; the 740i has a tenth of an inch less legroom but two tenths of an inch more headroom, while the S-Class has half an inch more headroom and more than three inches more legroom. Even the A8L trails the S-Class in rear-seat legroom, supposedly its long suit (pun intended), by almost one and a half inches. The long-wheelbase BMW, the 740Li, tops the A8L in rear-seat legroom, by almost one and one half inches.

The A8 has the least trunk space of the three, holding about one less foot-square box than the 740i and 740Li and three cubic feet less than the S-Class.

Figuring out how to operate Audi's navigation and audio systems borders on overwhelming. Audi stresses that its goal was to maximize features while minimizing distraction. Hence the touch pad and voice recognition interfaces. But the front seat of a high performance luxury sedan might not be the place to display a full-color, Rolodex-like graphic of the album covers of the CDs and DVDs stored on the 20 gigabytes of the navigation system's hard disk drive dedicated to personalized recordings. And while a seemingly endless list of points of interest can be helpful at times, and using the touch pad to scroll through them is certainly high tech, the driver still has to look at the screen to pick the point that's most interesting. Of course, that can be said, and no doubt it has been, of any graphical POI feature, but given that, other systems relying on voice recognition alone have fared quite well in the marketplace of public acceptance without adding the burden of learning how to finger paint numbers and letters while not looking at the electronic pen and pad.

Otherwise, essential controls follow Audi's established patterns, with legibly marked buttons and knobs ergonomically arranged on the center console forward of the shift lever (about which more later). A touch of class is the tidy analog clock (round face with sweeping hour and minute hands) centered in the dash.

Classy, too, are the superb surround sounds delivered by the 19-speaker Bang & Olufsen audio system on the test car, with the crispest of highs floating out of twin, acoustically tuned, mini-tower speakers that pop up out of the ends of the dash top and the deepest of basses pumped up by the 1400-watt amplifier but without rattling windows or threatening occupants' heart health.

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